Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Turtles and the Lobsters

The turtles creep out of the sea
Ever so anxious not to be seen.
They shuffle up the sandy beach
Until the restaurants they reach

There the lobsters lay in wait,
Reflecting on their grizzly fate:
To be eaten by a head of state,
Off a silver-gilded plate.

The waiters leave to check the rice,
The turtles leap to the trays of ice,
In one fail swoop they seize their loot,
Then disappear to evade pursuit.

 Freed from their plight,
The lobsters dash off in flight.
The waiters watch exasperated,
The turtles smile much elated.

Turning tail and running,
Ever so pleased with their cunning,
They race back to the ocean.
Causing quite a commotion.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The boy called Will

There once was a boy called Will,
Who didn’t like that fish were killed.
Seeing ice-trays of seafood,
He thought rather crude,
And, though he liked fishing,
He spent his whole life wishing,
The world was a little less cruel.

So one day he moved to the ocean shores,
To learn first-hand about fishing folklore.
He soon realised that fish stocks were dwindling,
With no hope of numbers re-kindling
And that overfishing shoudn’t be ignored.

He voyaged the seas far and wide,
Enduring tempestuous seas and dangerous tides,
Studied the distribution of cod
And the number of dolphin pods.
Discovering everything from giant squid,
To enormous aquatic pigs.

He became a legendary sailor,
Admired by even Japanese whalers.
So with intelligence and tact,
He laid out the facts,
Convincing them all,
That over-fishing
 Just isn’t cool.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


He had travelled the world far and wide,
Delved into the oceans and explored the skies.
From slippery-armed squid to sharp-horned pigs,
Wide-finned whales to tiny, slippery snails,
He thought he had heard every call,
And seen every creature, great or small.
Yet rumours reached him from far away,
Of a secret species not seen by night nor day.
A mysterious beast that travelled in packs,
And was untraceable save for the faintest of tracks.

 They said it could traverse mountains and scale their summits,
Navigate the coastline and swim through ocean currents.
As at home in the hills as in the sea,
A master of all with effortless ease.
Some said it was reckless,
Seen running across logs aflame with fire,
Or attempting dangerous feats with consequences dire.
Others said it was a drunkard,
Seen more often than not with a bottle in hand,
Running in circles and struggling to stand.

Some thought it was a monkey, with thick dark hair and gangly arms.
Others thought a meerkat, with a sharp, weasely face and cheeky charms.
A few swore it was a bear,
Active, affable and impossible to scare,
While others vowed it a mouse,
Often caught napping, if not asleep in its house.
From gungho enthusiasm and adventurous daring,
To woozy alcoholism and loss of bearings,
Rumours were rife of this chaotic creature,
So the adventurer composed a list of its features.

He questioned witnesses and drew up plans,
Plotted trips that took him as far as Japan.
Yet the criteria was so broad,
He knew not whether to search the skies or scour the fjords,
And was soon convinced that the tales must be fraud.
No matter how much he strained,
His investigation was all but in vain
And he wound up in utter pain.
So, not sure where to go nor how to begin,
He sat down and had a large glass of gin.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Urban Stories: Covent Garden

He tightened the knot of his scarf snug around his throat as he emerged from the lift, falling into the short-stepped shuffle of commuters that were filtering through the ticket barriers. Some joined the throng of people wandering towards the piazza, others traversed the street to lean against the “20% Discount Today Only” stickers emblazoned across the windows of Oasis, the generic meeting point from Covent Garden tube. Bleeping himself through the barrier, Brian paused momentarily to pick up an Evening Standard before joining the stream of tourists, the obsolete hollers of the newspaper vendor following him as he walked.

James Street was congested with the usual muddle: red-vested restaurant touts brandishing 2-4-1 Maxwell fliers; eagle-eyed chuggers armed with superficial smiles, ingratiating small talk and a clipboard; Big Issue sellers resident in the indent between Boots and Sketchers, this time the lady with a dry frizz of purple hair and a sad-eyed dog. To the right of the tube was a charred steel drum sheltered by a tatty red and white tarpaulin and loaded with burning white coals. A dozen pebble-like chestnuts roasted slowly on the grill, later to be sold for £2 per plastic cup. Opposite, a metallic man with a comically large nose sat on thin air, legs crossed, arms folded and comfortably cupping his chin in assumed thought. Other street performers were stationed further down the street: a magician loudly rallying spectators together for his next show, a Jack Sparrow, tapping his foot impatiently while waiting for the life-size gnome to vacate his slot on the street, and a 19th century sailor dressed in full ceremonial garb.

On reaching the crossroad, marked at each corner by traditional Victorian pubs (The White Lion and The Nag’s Head) Brian turned left. Away from the bustle of the tube station, the street was quieter. The glass-fronted restaurants however were brimming with diners enjoying pre-theatre dinner. Hugging his jacket close to his chest as he passed, Brian glanced up briefly at the helical bridge linking the top floor of the buildings either side of him, then abruptly turning right. He fished his ID from his breast pocket, swiped it across a transparent square on the wall and a glass door swung open; he stepped inside.

He arrived in a room no larger than an over-sized cloakroom – a small reception desk, a cluster of chairs and a water machine. Loosening his scarf, he went straight to the desk where a woman with short blonde hair and rosy cheeks was examining a TV monitor. He caught her eye with a smile.

“Any mail for me today Ruby,” he asked. Ruby nodded, disappearing behind the desk and busying herself in a unit of pidgeon holes heavily stacked with paperwork

“Gimme a min,” she called, her voice muffled.

While waiting, he turned a circle listlessly before wandering over to the row of seats. As he sat down, another figure entered the reception via a side door. She was barefoot and wearing an over-sized hospital gown. Loosely fastened by a tie in the small of her back, it rustled like paper as she moved. She was completely bald and deathly white, with pale chapped lips and wide hollow eyes sunken into pallid, puffy cheeks. As she turned to show her side profile, Brian’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably. The back of her skull appeared to have been hacked away: the crown of her head a squashy, squiggly mess of raw red and pink tissues.

As she leant over the reception desk to see where Ruby was, she caught sight of Brian. She grinned sheepishly. Incongruent with her appearance, it gave her a slightly crazed look.

“That goddam makeup department,” Brian smiled, getting to his feet. “Your head makes me squeamish every time!”

“Gotta look the part haven’t I,” she replied, running a hand delicately across the top of her skull as if modelling a designer hat.

“Just finished rehearsals?” he continued, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek.

“You bet. Wrapped up and ready for curtain up. Got those vocal chords prepped?”

Brian tugged his scarf lightly and cocked his head. “Always.”


Two hours later, the cavernous auditorium of the Royal Opera House was filled with the murmuring chatter of an expectant audience; front of house staff ushered latecomers into their seats, coughs were cleared and programmes rustled. As the lights dimmed, a whispering hush fell until the audience were waiting the in silent darkness. As the royal red velvet curtain parted, the orchestra began to play and the silence of the theatre was filled with the melodic lines of the opening overture.

Standing in the shadows in the wings of the stage, Brian felt a ripple of adrenalin. Though unable to see them, he knew that hundreds of people were waiting for him. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes, hands behind his back and brow furrowed in contemplation.

A few minutes later, the music suddenly crescendoed. Looking up, he stepped from the shadows and into the dazzling spotlight on-stage.

 First published on Urban Stories.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Spiderman Unmasked

Like the rest of Madrid, Plaza Mayor wakes up slowly. In the morning, it is refreshingly quiet and serene; you can amble across the cobbles without having to traverse the crowds, pause to take a photo without being harangued by a Mickey Mouse and take your pick of the terraces without having to stalk tables... The calm before the carnival.

As the morning drifts by, the street performers filter in one-by-one, preparing for the day’s entertainment. A year since I last visited, I watched as a steady stream of familiar faces arrived. The inexplicably successful snapping goat (a body of tinsel and a plastic head with a hinged jaw) remained resident in the north-west corner. Whether desperate or just enthusiastic, its jingles, snaps and shakes seemed even more animated than they were last year. The man masquerading as a baby, his face painted garish colours and nestled in an overly twee pram, took up position in the centre of the square. More disturbing than entertaining, his success is even more surprising than that of the goat. The headless sailors meanwhile had multiplied three-fold. Wearing identically ill-fitting suits, the bulge of their heads protruding clumsily from between the shoulder pads, they hovered awkwardly in opposite corners of the plaza. 

A few new faces had joined the ranks. The yellow zig-zag crest of a Bart Simpson bobbed through the crowd, alongside a short and squat Tigger, a Winney the Pooh and a host of less-recognisable characters. I was informed that one, which can only be described as a pink banana with a smile, was the sidekick to Spongebob Squarepants. Innovation must be running low… There were a few token Spanish acts: an ornately dressed matador waving a bilious red flag and a Carmen swishing the elaborate red skirts of a full flamenco dress, as well as a few notable absentees: the tango-tanned Elvis and the Charlie Chaplin were nowhere to be seen, nor was the Jesus Christ who made his debut last April (hardly surprising in a staunchly catholic country). 

In the business of the plaza, experience shows. By midday, the Tigger had retreated glumly to the shade of the central statue; the Goat, in comparison, had procured a generous hatful of change from passersby. Spiderman meanwhile, the undisputed ringmaster of Plaza Mayor, remained nowhere to be seen. Presumably, he was unconcerned with the slow trade of the early morning. As expected, just as the square was beginning to buzz, I heard the rattle of his plastic trunk being dragged unceremoniously across the cobbles. 

When I looked up however, Spiderman was nowhere to be seen. In his place, a large, squashy-looking Spaniard wearing an unbuttoned scruffy shirt, baggy knee-length shorts and flip flops. Running a hand absent-mindedly through his thick mop of black hair, he sat down on the trunk and looked around the plaza absent-mindedly. His round-shouldered slouch and perusing gaze curiously familiar, not to mention his possession of the trademark trunk, I was immediately suspicious. … Could this bushy-haired, broad-bellied Spaniard be the man behind the mask? After a moment or two he lumbered to his feet. Standing, his silhouette was unmistakable. The faded black T-shirt had risen to reveal a band of belly flesh drooping in a generous sag over the waistband of his shorts and he was rocking back on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. There was no mistake: Spiderman had appeared in the plaza without his disguise. Was this a first? Spiderman unmasked?

He didn’t linger long in the open. Taking hold of his trunk, he began walking towards a nearby restaurant and, waving a hand in greeting to the waiter, vanished inside. I imagine his metamorphosis from mere mortal into superhero was rather more cumbersome than most flash transformations; he didn’t emerge for some time. A booming “Venga! Hay criminales por aqui?!” alerted me to his reappearance. Slaloming through the crowd with his distinctive gait – belly first and breast bouncing slightly with each step – he began his shift by patrolling the square. Taking command of the plaza, he swept past the restaurants to high-five the waiters and greet the locals before setting to work with characteristic panache.

On his watch, even those observing from the safety of restaurant terraces weren’t safe. Quick to catch the eye of any tourist even mildly curious, he would swoop to their table, yoink them from their seats and work them through his extended repertory of poses: ultra-camp, then heroic, then sexy. When a slightly disorientated group wearing sombreros and dragging wheelie suitcases stumbled into the plaza – a potential jackpot – he was immediately ready for the pounce: legs bent and bouncing on the balls of his toes as they approached. While the snapping goat lay abandoned in a shimmery heap on the floor (its occupant having a quick fag under the archway) and the Flamenco dancer squatted dolefully under the shade of her umbrella, Spiderman dominated the square with ease. 

Undoubtedly the star of the circus, Spiderman's success is undeniable. When I first saw him in the scorching heat of August 2010, he was practically a permanent resident of the plaza: a guaranteed presence right from the first café latte through to the evening aperitif. Now, he has the liberty to work to his own slightly sporadic timetable, has upgraded his worn out rucksack to a sturdy plastic trunk and has acquired a miniature statue of himself. He has even appeared in the local English newspaper several times. Needless to say, those in miscellaneous fancy dress have their work cut out if they’re trying to compete!

As you can probably tell, I’ve been following Spiderman for fair while...

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Eggy showers, rotten fish and baths in the mountains...

It’s February in Iceland and the mornings are drowsy. The soft light of dawn only begins creeping across the sky at 9am and the sun remains permanently low in the sky, sinking back below the horizon by 6pm: a natural timetable that favours boozy evenings and lazy mornings. The bar-based routine is encouraged by the fact that venturing outside can be something of a trial: feathery dustings of snow conceal lethal sheets of ice and the climate flits unpredictably between bitingly fresh air with clear skies and blizzard-like conditions with zero-visibility. To leave the city without first checking weather forecasts and road reports is just asking for trouble. Even so, Icelanders have mastered how to live out the winter in style: the island is kept toastie-warm by geothermal energy. Though a slightly eggy smell lingers in the water supply, the bottomless furnace that keeps the indoors warm and welcoming more than compensates. An infinite fuel supply also allows guilt-free decadence using power: heating on and windows open, luxuriously long showers and natural under-floor heating.

Outside of the city however, Iceland is anything but welcoming. Little seems to survive other than the Icelandic ponies who, hard-as-nails, are unperturbed by the most extreme conditions. The countryside, battered by raging winds and arctic temperatures, is inhospitable and unforgiving. The landscape stretches on endlessly in bleak monotones: plains of volcanic black gravel dusted with snow and precipitous snow-covered mountains only just divisible from the white clouds. However, though stark and severe, it is also strangely beautiful. In certain areas, lakes are only part-frozen and patterned with sharp jigsaws of broken ice, while in others, rubble-like rock creates an alien landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in Space Odyssey.

However, stranger than the topography is that, just below the surface, this arctic land is a volatile cauldron of heat. Across the country, flumes of steam spiral from the earth to blend with the snow cover, and you don’t have to venture far into the mountains to find yourself hiking through the stinky sulphurous clouds belched out by hot springs. Craters of gloopy black mud burble suggestively as you pass them, gurgling pools of water bubble furiously at boiling point, and the mountain rivers are so scalding hot that it is preferable to stand barefoot in the snow than paddle.

On my last day, I visited the Kolgrafafjörður fjord on the on Snaefellsnes peninsula. However, what I had thought to be a scenic drive became an impromptu field study when we passed a bay where there had been a mass mortality of fish. I was accompanied by four biologists who, without an inkling of queasiness, made a beeline for the water’s edge. Soon ankle deep in dead herring, they began picking up the least decayed specimens to examine them, one filling up a plastic bag with ten in an opportunist sample collection. I stayed somewhat apprehensively further back. Even so, the mortality was on such a scale that, despite hovering 10m away from the shore, I still found myself squelching through the feathery spines and congealed putty-like fats of rotting fish.

It seems that, as fierce as it is on the surface, Iceland has a vulnerable side. An exemplar in its use of renewable energy, Iceland should be an eco-friendly paradise. However, for 30,000 tonnes worth of dead fish to wash up on the shore, something must be wrong. Then again, my brother, an ardent marine biologist, seemed wholly un-phased, dismissively likening the herring to lemmings. Perhaps it was just a freak of nature rather than a mad-made marine catastrophe…

Either way, from steaming hot rivers that snake through snow-covered mountains, to unexplained natural phenomena, Iceland is full of suprises...

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Dangle time in Benidorm

Romantically obscured by a misty haze, the coastline looked gorgeous. The rocky outcrops could have been mistaken for a desert island floating somewhere in the Atlantic; the beaches, free from sun-lounger congestion and plump reddening bellies, looked expansive and spotlessly clean; and the high-rise hotels, a distant metropolis of pencil-like blocks, could easily have been mistaken for the glittering cityscape of Dubai... It didn´t feel like we were just a stone´s throw from Spain´s largest – and perhaps most infamous – holiday resort.

However, driving past Benidorm at close quarters was enough to quash any glamorous comparisons. Boasting the most high-rise buildings per capita, the majority monotonously drab and dated, it is a sizeable eyesore on the coastline: certainly more seaside-council-estate than skyscraper-capital. Seen in winter, it has a slightly apocalyptic feel, as if the town has been ravaged by some kind of zombie takeover and left deserted.  Even so, this desolate resort somehow survives: the region seems to oscillate between retirement-ville and package-holiday hell. The warm winters and easy living make it a year-round haven for retired expats, while sun, sand and cheesy entertainments (decidedly more steak-and-ale-pie than tapas) make it a hotspot for sun-seeking holidaymakers. As such, it has weathered Spain’s economic gloom thus far. But how long can it hang on? 

Fortunately for the Costa Blanca, another genre of tourism seems to have taken hold. The Altea Hills, less than an hours drive from the coastline, are mecca for climbers, walkers and adventure enthusiasts. I recently spent a fair amount of time suspended some 20m high in the heart of these hills. Clipped to the rock with a caribiner and a loop of webbing, I was able to enjoy panoramic views of the landscape. As I had no means (or inclination) to go anywhere until I had the ok from the climbers above, due to the paraphernalia that goes with organising 120m worth of rope, I ended up dangling for an hour or more. Though my legs were soon tingling from lack of sensation, it was a small sacrifice for fresh mountain air and December sunshine. Gazing across swathes of pine forests and craggy cliffs that stretched as far as the eye could see, it felt like I was a million miles from big, brash and brawdy Benidorm.

Though many dismiss the region as bland and built-up, there are pockets that have escaped the package holiday explosion: after a few days of mountain-based action followed by BBQs back at the villa (all served with fresh veg and scarily cheap cava from a local supermarket), I couldn’t have felt further from the characterless hotel multiplexes.

I suppose the flip-side is that, even when you do find those small havens of natural beauty, if ever you venture into town, you will have more chance of finding a Burger King or full-English than an authentic tapas bar.